Chickenpox is so easily caught that it is almost a natural hazard of
childhood. The illness does not last long, hardly ever has serious complications
and looking after the patient at home is a simple matter.
Most of us will have had chickenpox at some time during our childhood and
most of the children we know will catch it at some stage. It is a common illness
and rarely has serious complications so there is no immunization programme to
prevent it. Once you've had it you will have a natural immunity against a second
The medical name for chickenpox is varicella. It occurs mainly in children
and is highly infectious. It is easily recognized by the rash it causes. Babies
acquire a natural immunity to the infection from their mothers but this
resistance wears off by the age of two or three. After this age a child is
likely to catch the infection from other children, generally before the age of
The virus (or germ) that causes chickenpox is the same one that causes shingles
in adults. An adult with shingles can give a child chickenpox, just as a child
with chickenpox can give a grown-up person the shingles virus. Outbreaks of
chickenpox are strongest in the autumn and winter and seem to occur in three- to
four-year cycles as new groups of children lose their inborn resistance.
The virus is spread from person to person, usually by personal contact or by
droplet infection. Clusters of the virus are contained in the tiny droplets of
water that are exhaled as a matter of course with every breath. When another
child breathes in an infected droplet, the virus starts to multiply and another
case of chickenpox begins.
Once the virus enters the body, it will spread after an incubation period of ten
days to three weeks. The first a child will know of his or her illness will be a
24-hour period of vague headache, feeling unwell, occasional slight fever and
sometimes a blotchy red rash which quickly fades. A mother may note that her
child is 'off colour' or 'sickening for something'.
Within 24 hours spots appear. The first ones appear in the mouth and throat
where they quickly burst, causing pain and soreness. Spots then appear on the
trunk and face, with only relatively few on the arms and legs.
THE SPOTS GROW
The spot starts as a pink pimple which within five or six hours becomes raised
to form a tiny blister, or vesicle, containing clear fluid which is full of
viruses. These 'teardrop' spots gradually become milky in colour. Then they form
a crust and finally a scab. The time from the appearance of the teardrop to the
formation of the scab is only about 24 hours. During this period the child may
be fretful and run a temperature of 38°C (100° or 101°F).
Some children have only 30 or 50 spots, while others may have several
hundred. Immediately the crust forms, the spots begin to itch and this may last
until the scabs drop off, leaving normal skin, after one or two weeks.
Children with a high temperature who feel unwell may prefer to stay in bed or
lie downstairs in a warm room. There is no need to enforce strict bed rest. Any
pain from a sore throat or headache is best relieved with a painkiller such as
Apply calamine lotion which has a cooling and anti-itching effect.
Alternatively, constant itching can be reduced with an antihistamine drug,
precribed by your doctor.
Scabs start to disappear after ten days and most children will be completely
clear of spots in two weeks. Serious complications, although rare, include skin
infections, pneumonia (usually in adults) and (very rarely) encephalitis.